November 11th, 2013
The times they are a changin’ sang Bob Dylan. As an example, the seasons show us short term changes. While the Earth’s axes points one of its poles toward or away from the Sun then the net energy deposited by the Sun on the Earth increases or decreases. In a surprisingly small angular variation, the climate on the Earth swings from the severely unpleasant heat of summer or the death defying cold of winter. Yet, farmers and city dwellers have learned to live with these changes.
One of the strongest tools supporting our adaptation to change is capitalism. This economic style enables producers to gauge the needs of the populace and to respond accordingly. If warm coats are needed in winter then enough are made. If schools need books with which to teach then books are printed. As vouchsafed by any MBA student, the only prerequisite to a product is demand. As long as we have consumers who consume then capitalism will lead us to a better future.
However, the changes brought on by capitalism aren’t wholly fruitful. Most products are derived from resources on the Earth. Most products require energy to design, fabricate and transport. The supply of resources on Earth is obviously finite. As a corollary, the Human Footprint grows greater every year. The long term change seems obvious; people will have to survive with fewer resources. Are we ready for those changing times?
October 20th, 2013
Change is what makes our lives interesting. Some equate change to a curse but nevertheless, without change things would probably be pretty boring. Luckily, with all our great measuring devices, we can make graphs and see trends so that we know how a great many things change.
Looking at the change in humanity’s total consumption of energy over the years shows us a rather constant, one way graph. It’s going up. If we extend the scale to a few thousand years ago, we see humanity has gone from consuming food for energy to burning wood for its energy to accessing fossil fuels for theirs. But there’s more. Not only are people using a lot more energy, there are also many more people. The multiplicative effect of more people each using more energy drives our consumption ever higher.
So, how do we change, assuming we so desire? We can decrease the energy consumption. But, so far we’ve only managed to decrease the rate of increase. It is still increasing! We can also decrease the population. But again, we are just barely decreasing the rate of increase. Well apparently, we’re not changing. So what will change?
September 10th, 2013
The continental United States just saw one of its most significant fireballs ever. This celestial wonder brought joy to the hearts of many observers who witnessed its spectacle as it crossed the night sky.
The source of the fireball was a meteor. Its estimated mass of 45kg and relative speed of 23.7km/sec made for a somewhat tiny but fast interloper. Just considering the change in kinetic energy as Earth’s atmosphere slowed the meteor causes pause. The motion energy of 1.26e10J all became deposited heat. Not much heat, only about the same as burning a ton of coal.
Now imagine if you were watching the night sky and saw a meteor such as the one that struck Chicxulub. That deposited about 1e17J of energy or about the same as from fissioning one ton of Uranium. There would be a good chance that you would not see another sight if you did indeed see such a meteor.
Last, realize that humans use energy in excess of 1e20J each year. Does it make you wonder?
August 18th, 2013
Cities constitute the life blood of our civilization. Within them, specialists can nurture their craft without the constraints of daily food gathering or defending their loved ones. Because of cities, we can enable the +25 years of training necessary for people to learn a technology and we can then enable their efforts to utilise and augment the technology. What happens when cities fail and can’t nurture their residents?
The city of Detroit has virtually declared bankruptcy. Surprisingly this seems to mean that the city survives while its debt evaporates. But it’s not the same city. Reports indicate that the population has dropped by 25%, housing values are down 35% and the median income is less than 50% of the national average. While some individuals still prosper there, the mass exodus of residence from the city leaves it incapable of making significant contributions to civilization’s future, at least in the short term.
From a global perspective, with more than half of humanity living in cities then the loss of any city is a concern. What happens if Sao Paulo were to fail; its 20 million people would need new homes. Where? How about Cairo with almost the same population? Do we have the energy to transport a city’s residents and secure their well being in other places? If we haven’t the energy then what happens to them and to civilization’s future?
July 14th, 2013
Money serves a vital role in our lives. With legal tender, a small scrap of paper and a promise becomes sufficient to pay for all our groceries. We also use it as a relative marker such as Brent Crude Oil being at $109 a barrel. Then there’s the value of our everyday work, such as the purchasing power parity per capita ranging from $100k/a to $0.5k/a depending upon your country of residence. We even put a value on life, which can go up to $6M. You’d think that with this fantastically utile item then our lives would be completely in order.
Let’s check to see if things are in order. First, let’s look at human worth of $6M. If we work to the value of $100k/a then we need to work for 60 years to equal that amount. If we work at $0.5k/a then we need to work 12000 years for the same goal. Now the average global life expectancy is 67 years. This doesn’t look to be in order.
Let’s look another way. Each life is worth $6M. Now take the value of oil and the energy content of oil. This results in an assessed human worth of 3.4e14J of energy. If a person works for 45 years then they’d have to work 7.5e12J each year to cover this worth. That’s 2e10J/day. However, the daily dietary energy consumption is 1.6e7J/day. How can we eat so little and be worth so much? Why does the value of a dollar seem so at odds with everyday issues?